• Rav Nathaniel Helfgot

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot


The first narrative of our parasha (25:10-15) relates an act of personal selection; namely, the special covenant that God establishes with Pinchas and his descendents. In parallel fashion the last narrative (27:12-23) closes with a similar theme: the transfer of power from Moshe to Yehoshua. This is the classical technique of creating a literary "envelope" often found in Tanakh. (The last section of parashat Pinchas (ch. 28-29) - the musafim of the various holidays - is not a narrative, but a legal section, and stands out as a separate unit. In fact, the Ramban and others question its placement here; however, this is beyond the scope of our current discussion.)

While the practical ramifications of the transfer to Yehoshua are readily apparent, the same cannot be said for the consequences of the "brit shalom" that Pinchas receives. However, there clearly is some impact, as can be noted from several interesting phenomena associated with the priesthood later in Tanakh. For example, we note that in the list of high priests (Divrei ha-Yamim I, ch.5), the chronicler lists only those from the house of Pinchas ben Elazar and none from the house of Itamar. Chazal, in a number of midrashim, claim that Eli, the kohen gadol of the opening of Sefer Shmuel, was from the house of Itamar. In this context we should add that Josephus (Antiquities 5, 357) cites a similar tradition. He claims that originally the high priesthood was the province of the house of Elazar/Pinchas until the time of Eli, who was the first of the house of Itamar to be high priest. Eli's progeny controlled the high priesthood until the reign of King Solomon and from then on it reverted back into the hands of the sons of Elazar for the rest of Biblical history. It is also worthwhile to point out that Tanakh notes in Divrei ha-Yamim I, ch.24 that the clan of the house of Elazar was far more numerous than the descendents of the house of Itamar. Thus, the Elazar priests were more highly represented in the 24 mishmarot/machlakot that served on a rotating basis in the Temple. Finally, Yechezkel declares in his famous prophetic section regarding the future temple, that the "children of Tzadok (a descendent of Pinchas) will serve Me (God)" (44:15).

Be that as it may, our parasha is bounded by two stories of newly-minted leadership roles - Pinchas and Yehoshua. In fact, a closer look at our parasha reveals that this is just the surface of a much deeper development that runs throughout the middle of Sefer Bamidbar. To fully understand the significance of the Pinchas and Yehoshua narratives, let us back track a bit and lay out the thesis in its entirety.


In the shiur on parashat Beha'alotkha, a number of weeks back, I highlighted the glaring breakdown that occurs in the narrative in ch. 11 of Bamidbar. Up until that point, the mission was progressing smoothly. The camp was organized, the census taken and the instruments by which movement and assembly (the "cloud" and the trumpets) were all in place. Indeed, at the end of ch. 10, the Jewish people, led by the "aron berit Hashem" begin their first journey outside the area of Midbar Sinai, into the desert and the intended destination of Eretz Yisrael in the near future. In ch. 11 the march forward begins to unravel, replaced by the litany of complaints and rebellions that dot the middle part of the Sefer.

Hand in hand with the unraveling of Benei Yisrael's loyalty to the mission is the slow erosion of the position and role of Moshe Rabbeinu as leader of the people. This at first occurs subtly through an interplay of both internal (to Moshe) and external factors along the way. Eventually, it reaches its pinnacle in our parasha. Let me present the case in outline form:

1) At the opening of ch. 11 the Torah describes the murmurings of the "mit'onenim." In that story there is no explicit hostility towards Moses, nor is there any expression of a desire to return to Egypt. In fact, the people turn to Moshe for aid, and Moshe prays to God on their behalf, bringing about the cessation of "God's fire" (11).

2) However, when we move to the next incident, Kivrot Ha-ta'ava, we already see a shift. The people do not come to Moshe for aid or requests. They immediately complain about having left Egypt, remembering the foodstuffs that they ate there for "free." Only in verse 10, a full 6 verses into the story, are we told that "Moshe heard the people crying together in their families." In fact, the better translation would probably be "Moshe OVERHEARD the people crying etc." Moshe is not even a target for their complaints.

3) Moshe's reaction to the people's statements is highly revealing. While in the past Moshe is ready to do battle on behalf of the people, here he is ready to throw in the towel. Moshe very significantly says to God "Why have you done evil to YOUR SERVANT (harei'ota le-avadekha) and why have I not found favor in your eyes to put the BURDEN of this people upon me" (11:11). The language of "lama harei'ota" echoes, of course, another challenge Moshe directed to God earlier in his career. At the very outset of the mission at the end of parashat Shemot, we recall that Moshe was rebuffed by Par'o and the conditions of the Jewish people worsened. At that point, Moshe had turned to God and said "Lama harei'ota la-am ha-zeh" (5:25). The difference, however, between the two passages is striking. In Shemot, Moshe was arguing on behalf of the people, "Lama harei'ota LA-AM HA-ZEH, why have you done evil to THIS PEOPLE." In our section it is a personal cry of frustration "Lama harei'ota LE-AVADEKHA, to YOUR SERVANT." Moshe is backing away from his mission and expressing frustration. He does not want to continue and actually presents God with a death-wish - "hargeini na harog" ("kill me" - 11:15).

4) The second part of Moshe's statement in the verse mentioned above, "velo matzati chein be-einekha" (I have not found favor in your eyes), is a bit enigmatic. What, exactly, is Moshe referring to when he speaks of God not having shown favor to him? Both Ibn Ezra and Rashbam suggest that Moshe is referring here to his original appointment by God at the burning bush and Moshe's insistence that he not be given the task. Taking this reading, we have Moshe returning to square one, regretting having ever taken the job of leader of the people. In a word, just as the people desire to go back to the past, to Mitzrayim, Moshe seems here to be returning to his original hesitations and ambivalence. We are then seeing Moshe once again as the "tiron," the tyro, in the language of Chazal in Shemot, and not the prophet who has led them out of Egypt and to revelation.

5) In Moshe's cry of frustration to God he speaks of being unable to carry the burden of leadership on his own. This is a request for a lessened leadership role, if not an entire exemption from continuing the mission. God, in responding to Moshe, decides indeed to give Moshe assistance in the form of the 70 elders. The elders, however, are not simply technical support staff. They are promised a measure of "ru'ach Hashem." Furthermore, God specifically indicates that the "ru'ach" will come from Moshe to the elders - "Ve-ATZALTI min ha-ru'ach asher alekha ve-samti aleikhem" (11:17). While some commentaries take this as a benign or even a positive statement, there are those who, I believe correctly, read this as an implicit rebuke to Moshe. The Chizkuni writes:

"Did God not have other sources of 'ru'ach' from which to give to the elders other than taking some of Moshe's? Rather, thus said God to Moshe: 'I told you to rule my people, and that I would give you wisdom to rule them, and I gave you my 'ru'ach' and you say "I cannot carry the burden alone?!" By your life, I will give them from YOUR spirit!"

6) In the aftermath of the installation of the 70 elders, the Torah presents to us the enigmatic episode of Eand Meidad. Whatever one make of this story, clearly there is an element of undermining of Moshe's unique role in the camp. Prophecy is no longer the exclusive domain of Moshe. Yehoshua, the faithful servant of Moshe, recognizes this development, and quickly seeks to suppress it. Moshe restrains him and in an eerily prescient statement says "Would it be that all of God's people were prophets" (11:29) - a statement that in fact is echoed in the next episode of Aharon and Miriam's challenge to their brother and partially lays the groundwork for the rebellion of Korach. It is interesting to note the exquisite midrash on the Eldad and Meidad story which claims that the content of their prophecy was that " Moshe will die and Yehoshua will lead the people into the Land." In a non-literal reading of this comment, one can suggest that Chazal are precisely noting that the erosion of Moshe's exclusive role as leader and prophet is itself another stage in the slow erosion of Moshe's continued leadership of the Jewish people in the future.

7) The next chapter in the book clearly continues this process, as Moshe's own siblings challenge his unique status as prophet. God intervenes and reminds them, that whatever prophecy they do have access to, it in no way compares to the level of Moshe's. However, the challenge is still startling and conceptually fits in with the entire pattern of the middle of the Sefer.

8) The next episode is the narrative of the meraglim. After the initial report of the meraglim, there appears to be some murmuring against Moshe and it is Calev ben Yefuneh, not Moshe himself who takes the reigns of leadership and quiets the people down.

9) Moving to the content of the meraglim story, it is here that the entire mission and very leadership of Moshe is assailed. In fact, for the first time in any of the stories of complaints the people state "Let us APPOINT A LEADER and return to Egypt" (14: 4). This is a direct mutiny against the stewardship of Moshe. Interestingly, Moshe and Aharon do not challenge the people but simply "fall on their face," which is read by Sforno as: "they hid their faces in the ground when they did not know what to do," and by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: "By throwing themselves down before them THEY GAVE THEIR LEADERSHIP BACK TO THE PEOPLE … their power was at an end and humanly they could do nothing further."

10) The rebellion of Korach is a direct attack on the leadership of Moshe and Aharon and seems to receive much popular support at first. In fact, even after Korach and his followers are killed, the people complained bitterly to Moshe, "You have killed the PEOPLE OF HASHEM" (17:6), which brings upon them the wrath of God.

11) The next narrative takes place 40 years later and irreversibly changes Moshe's destiny. In ch. 20 of Bamidbar, the Torah presents the narrative of Mei Meriva. Here too, Moshe and Aharon are at a loss in dealing with the crisis of this new generation of Jews who are preparing to enter the land of Israel. They retreat into the Ohel Mo'ed and once again fall on their faces in the wake of the people's complaints. Ibn Ezra comments, "like those fleeing," R. S.R. Hirsch states (in startling language): "They FLED FOR REFUGE TO THE OHEL MO'ED AS ALWAYS WHEN THERE WAS A QUESTION WHETHER THEIR MISSION WAS REALLY GIVEN AND DIRECTED BY GOD."

(In this context I would also submit for consideration a theory that I developed in my article, "Moses and the Striking of the Rock" (TRADITION, 1993). After a literary analysis comparing the story of Mei Meriva and the water episode in parashat Beshalach, I suggested that Moshe loses the leadership here because he responds to the crisis of the new generation with the exact same strategies and methods that he employed in handling the old generation. It is not so much a "sin and punishment" but rather an indicator that the time for a new leader to take the people forward has come. This requires a fuller exposition and I would urge the interested reader to see the article.)

12) In the aftermath of Moshe's loss of the future leadership, a slow erosion of his position begins to manifest itself throughout parashat Chukat. Thus, for example, in the confrontation with Edom in ch. 20, the original dialogue takes place between Moshe and Edom. By verse 18, however, in a very subtle shift, the Torah states " Benei Yisrael said to him (Edom)."

13) At the beginning of ch. 21, the Jewish people confront "the Canaanite, king of Arad, who dwells in the Negev." In this episode, Moshe is absent and the Torah emphasizes the role of the people including the fact that God listens to THEIR PRAYER in sharp contrast to the normal pattern of Moshe praying on behalf of the people! "And Yisrael fought ... Yisrael took a vow ... God heard the voice of Yisrael."

Chazal identified this Canaanite king with Amalek, which highlights my point even more. In this midrashic reading, we have a startling contrast to the first confrontation with Amalek in parashat Beshalach where Moshe, his arms raised, takes center stage in every sense of the word. Here, Moshe is absent and it is the people alone who deal with the ultimate incarnation of evil which is Amalek.

14) Towards the middle of ch. 21, when the people pass the territory of Moav, the Torah tells us that the people sang a song of praise to God: "Az yashir YISRAEL et ha-shira ha-zot" (verse 18). This clearly is meant to parallel the "shira" of the first generation, the "Song of the Sea." The contrast is striking. While in Beshalach, it is "Then Moshe and Benei Yisrael sang," here it is just "Az Yashir YISRAEL."

15) In the subsequent confrontation with Sichon a similar note is struck. The Torah records that "Yisrael sent messengers to Sichon" (21:21) with no word about Moshe's role. This is particularly striking because in parashat Devarim, when Moshe recounts selected parts of the desert history, he writes "And I sent messengers to Sichon" (2:26), and includes a dialogue between himself and God - for (Sichon) is given into YOUR hand" - that is entirely missing from the presentation here in Sefer Bamidbar. Moshe's role here is completely ignored.

16) In the entire Balak/Bil'am narrative, Moshe(and in truth the entire Jewish people) are absent. The effect is that for three lengthy chapters there is someone other than Moshe who is communicating with God and is the vehicle for informing us of God's will and prognostications for the future of Jewish history. It is in this light that one can also read the very suggestive midrashim that speak of Bil'am being a prophet of equal or greater rank than Moshe Rabbeinu.

17) Arriving now at the Pinchas episode, the pattern that has been outlined above continues as well. In the story, as I pointed out last year in the VBM shiur on Matot-Masei, the second generation seem to go through a chet ha-egel type experience at Ba'al Pe'or. However, while in Shemot, Moshe is the one who rallies the troops and declares "mi le-Hashem eilai," in our section he appears to be paralyzed and the hero of the day is the levi himself, Pinchas, who on his own initiative takes up the spear and slays the offender. Chazal speak of Moshe's "forgetting" the halakha that led to his inaction. It is now Pinchas, together with his father Elazar, who begin to take a more active role in the running of the Jewish people. At the beginning of ch. 26 of our parasha, both Moshe and Elazar are instructed to take the census of the people, in contrast to the original census at the outset of Sefer Bamidbar in which only Moshe receives the charge to count the people. With the completion of the census and the charge to divide the land, Moshe's role as leader is slowly coming to a close.


It is at this point (ch. 27:12) that God informs Moshe that he should go up on the mountain and see the land for he will die and not enter it. Moshe, at this point, turns to God and requests that he ensure that the people have a proper leader to lead them into battle and other challenges that they will face. God directs Moshe to appoint Yehoshua and to place his hands upon him as a statement of passing on the reignsof leadership. The chapter concludes with phrase "And Moshe did as God commanded him." There is a dispute amongst the commentaries if this verse is to be understood as having occurred at this time, thus implying that Moshe already here went up on the mountain and also passed on the leadership to Yehoshua (and thus the verses in parashat Vayelekh and Ha'azinu regarding Moshe's ascent and statements to Yehoshua are a second, later story), or, as the Ramban claims (in his comments to 27:12), this occurs a few months later at the very end of Moshe's life and is only presented here to complete the narrative and indicate that Moshe (later on) indeed fulfilled God's dictates. Certainly, if one adopts the majority view against Ramban, we have already come to the end of the line here in parashat Pinchas, with Moshe already having removed himself as exclusive leader. If so, Moshe remains "on the job" for a few more months simply to wrap things up and pass on his final messages to the people. Even according to the Ramban, it is striking that God chooses already here to command Moshe as to his passing on, indicating that we have reached a literary culmination of the process that had begun in ch. 11 of Sefer Bamidbar.


In this climactic narrative, Moshe is informed that he will no longer carry on. He is told to ascend the mountain and see that which he will never reach. Moshe, in one of his final acts of leadership, does not complain or wallow in self-pity. His own personal and psychological needs simply do not emerge. Moshe, in a heroic gesture, is singularly concerned with one thing and one thing only: the future welfare of the Jewish people: "Moshe spoke to God, saying: Hashem, God of all spirits, should appoint a man over the congregation ... that the congregation of God should not be like sheep without shepherd" (27:15-17). Chazal point out that this is the only place in the entire Torah that it states "Va-yedaber MOSHE EL HASHEM LEIMOR." Usually it says "Va-yedaber Hashem el Moshe lemor." Here, on behalf of the people, Moshe is demanding of God, asking that He prepare for them a leader that will be willing and able to carry the mantle of leadership forward. There is no more fitting way to conclude our study of the very tragic erosion in the leadership position of Moshe than with this final act of heroism shown by Moshe Rabbeinu, in spite of everything he has lost throughout the long process we outlined above. As Chazal state: "[This section] comes to highlight the praise of the tzaddikim, that when they are about to depart from this world they abandon concern for their own needs and involve themselves in the needs of the community" (Sifre Pinchas 138).